The Mills Archive

An online catalogue facing technological obsolescence, and the need to open collections to a wider audience through the internet, led the Mills Archive to adopt AtoM open source archival description software as the basis for their online catalogue.

In 2012 the Mills Archive took the decision to use AtoM. Over the next two years a large amount of work was carried out on existing data and this was imported into the new catalogue in summer 2014. At the same  the Mills Archive were developing a new website and mills database. The new website and catalogue were launched in early 2015.

Challenges and opportunities

The archive had identified a number of disadvantages with the original catalogue system, which consisted of an Access database, bespoke editing software and an online catalogue:

  • the online catalogue did not update in real time with the live database. Instead a copy of the access database and related digital files were periodically sent to the website hosts
  • the bespoke editing programme and website were becoming increasingly out of date, and loss of contact with the original developers made it unlikely that they would ever be revised or updated
  • the structure of the catalogue did not correspond exactly with archival standards of interoperability: the data could not easily be transferred to a new system or uploaded to multi-repository gateways such as Archives Hub
  • much of the data was poor quality due to lack of rules governing how to catalogue, insufficient oversight of cataloguing and lack of awareness of archive principles such as provenance

After researching various options the decision was taken to use AtoM (then ICA-AtoM) open software in 2012. The catalogue is standards-based, requiring significant work on the existing catalogue data before it could be imported.

The original Access catalogue included an index of 10,000 mills, each with their type, function and location details. Only the 3,000 entries which had been used in indexing were visible online. As the standards based AtoM software was not flexible enough to include the subject specific fields used in the mills index, a freestanding database with links across to the catalogue was developed as part of our new website.

Responding to the challenges or opportunities

Preparing the data for import meant:

  • mapping the fields of the catalogue to ISAD(G)
  • revising data where there was not a one-to-one mapping (for example, splitting data from one field into two or combining data from two fields into one)
  • adding data so that every entry would include data in the six mandatory ISAD(G) fields
  • further modification to fit the more specific requirements of AtoM (for example, machine-readable date formats alongside free text; converting the method of indicating collection hierarchy into the form required for import to AtoM)

It was decided to improve the quality of data the same time. This process included:

  • developing house rules on the format of data in each field, or adopting existing rules (for example, the NCA rules for names)
  • revising data to conform to these rules and remove errors and inconsistencies
  • altering the hierarchical structures of collections to reflect provenance rather than subject categories, where possible
  • volunteers compiled box lists of uncatalogued material to be added to the collection level descriptions of the relevant collections

Using AtoM allows the Mills Archive to provide more information at the collections level and it is a better tool for recording and demonstrating the context and the relationship of records with other material compared to the former catalogue.

The new Mills Database makes all 10,000 entries visible and serves as a useful access point to our online resources, allowing the user to click on a mill entry and open a dynamic page which provides access to the AtoM records. It also gives background information on the mill, indicates which books in the library and shop are relevant and provides links to external sites. Further integration of the catalogue and main website offers a variety of new ways to understand the intellectual content of the collections and helps researchers with discovery.


  • ability to update the online catalogue more quickly
  • greater flexibility and opportunities for collaboration and better communications provided by the software
  • a range of new services that could only be offered by the close integration of the new catalogue and the website, allowing rapid exchange and updating of information
  • use of digitised images in the catalogue to make it more visual
  • ability to host smaller catalogues from other organisations
  • successful management of change with volunteer cataloguers who continue to be impressed with the ease of use and increased functionality

What went well? What didn’t go quite as well?

The data revision allowed for successful import to AtoM and the development of the new website and Mills Database was a success. However the work took considerably longer to complete than anticipated.

Developing this work in the future

The new site includes a glossary of mill terms. A collaborative project with the Mills Research Group is planned to turn this into an illustrated, multilingual resource; at the same time the glossary can be integrated with AtoM similarly to the Mills Database integration, so that terms in the glossary will link to subject index searches of the online catalogue.

The facility for assigning collections to separate repositories on AtoM with their own theming and search facility has enabled the archive to host smaller catalogues from our partners (for example, working mills). This we hope to develop.

The Mills Database has potential for improvement, including improving and correcting existing entries, ensuring thorough coverage of UK and branching out into new areas whether geographical (other countries) or type of mill (for example, roller flour mills).

Look at The Mills Archive online catalogue.